and hell followed with him

It’s time to play catch-up with my book reviews, even though I haven’t read as much as usual and these are not the most popular posts. But I like reflecting on and writing about what I’ve read. This summer I finished three books dealing with death and its pursuant hell: of war, of the criminal justice system, and of the otherworldly variety. It was not as gloomy a turn as it sounds. Plus, all three were fiction, which is unusual for me.

It started at the beginning of the summer with The Shining, my first Stephen King novel. A few days after moving to Boston, I joined the Brookline Public Library, a branch of which is just up the street from our apartment, and on a whim decided to pay homage to New England’s adopted son. I did this with not a little trepidation, since I generally can’t stomach anything in the horror genre. And it probably didn’t help that I read most of the book while at a remote Mexican resort during Tropical Storm Debbie, making leaving even the room, let alone the grounds, almost impossible. And, yes, the image to the left is indeed the cover art of the book I checked out: It probably should have been harder to scare me with visuals like those, but King is a master. The story has become such a part of popular culture — particularly because of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson — that even I was familiar with the plot, though I was surprised that some of the most iconic features of the story are from the film rather than the book. I won’t call it great literature, but King certainly knows how to write a page turner and a scary, suspenseful story: I couldn’t put it down, even would it would have been advisable to do so as I grew stir-crazy, trapped in a hotel of my own. Tortured writer Jack Torrance, his conflicted wife Wendy, and their clairvoyant son Danny all provide their perspectives on the events that occur when Jack accepts the winter caretaker position at the haunted Overlook Hotel in Colorado, leading to their months’ long isolation with only the company of the ghosts of residents past. It’s hard not to want them all to make it out alive, which the survivors do only with the help of cook Dick Hallorann, an early occurrence of the unfortunate “Magical Negro” stock character. Overall I am glad I read it, if for nothing else than the fact that I now get the references to it (even if most of them are from the movie). I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my previous knowledge of the book had come from a Friends episode in which Joey and Rachel trade favorite books. “‘What’s so great about The Shining?'” Joey asks incredulously. “The question should be, ‘What is not great about The Shining?’ — and the answer is, ‘Nothing!'”

I next tackled Téa Obreht’s highly acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife, which was the only decent choice in the Cancún airport after I had disposed of The Shining. It was another page turner: I finished it on the return journey to Boston (which admittedly was made longer than it should have been by delayed flights). Despite its glowing reviews, I didn’t love it. And I should have! Obrecht has been compared to some of my favorite authors, including García Márquez, Hemingway, Bulgakov, and Dinesen. And the novel was quite a good story: A young doctor in a war-torn Balkan country, searching for answers in the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, turns to the magical stories he told in her childhood. His fanciful folklore is told against the backdrop of a country, based on Obrecht’s homeland of the former Yugoslavia, enveloped by a heartbreaking succession of wars. Maybe it was the crankiness of travel that intruded on my reading experience. Conceivably the narrator’s attempts to justify a character’s beating of his wife — she actually says, “Luka was a batterer, and here’s why.” — lost me. Or perhaps I found distracting the photo of the author, who looks all of 12. I realize these are not all good reasons; then again, I’ve disagreed with award bestowers before (see The Inheritance of Loss).

Finally, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, recommended as a summer beach read by one of my favorite blogs, CrimeDime. I’ve loved Atwood’s fiction in the past, and this one did not disappoint. Like the two above, it was also a quick read. Based on the true story of a 16-year-old Irish servant convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and lover in antebellum Canada, the book jumps between the young woman’s story and that of the physician she tells it to during her incarceration. Atwood also makes use of contemporary historical accounts as interstitials. The real Grace Marks was one of the world’s most notorious criminals at her trial in 1843. She and a fellow servant were convicted of murdering their employer; after receiving death sentences, the trial for the murder of the housekeeper was deemed unnecessary. Her accomplice was hanged while her sentence was commuted, mostly due to her age, and public opinion — as well as that of those closest to her — remained divided about whether she was femme fatale or naif. Readers will likely remain as confounded, as Marks claimed not to remember the murders and later gave at least three different versions of what happened at the time of the deaths. Atwood writes to give Marks the chance that she wouldn’t have gotten in her time to tell her story — but draws no conclusion. Trigger warning: Atwood brings to light the issues of gender and class (but only race incidentally) that permeate the 19th century, most of which seem to be sexual advances of powerful men towards vulnerable women. In Atwood’s imagining, Marks holds herself a victim, and thus, she relates, her stints in an asylum and a penitentiary constitute a special hell for her.

What were your enjoyable, light summer reads?

turning anger into change

Trigger warning: This entire post is about my experience as a volunteer for a rape crisis center, details from which may be upsetting to survivors.

In August 2005, shortly after I moved to D.C., I responded to an ad in the Washington Post Express, a call for volunteers at the DC Rape Crisis Center. That action has defined my experience in D.C. for the past six-a-half-years.

I still remember with total clarity my first visit to the Center’s then-basement office downtown — and my initial interview with then-volunteer assistant Jessica Ingram (who I recently reunited with in her current position as Assistant Director of Admissions at HUC-JIR!). I fumbled some of the questions that she asked me, but I must have said something right, because a few weeks later I began the twelve-week training to become a hotline counselor and hospital advocate. Those sessions took place at the Luther Place Memorial Church, one block from where I live now, where I’ll pack up to take my leave from D.C. in a few months. Talk about coming full circle . . .

During that training, I first learned about rape trauma syndrome, about inclusive language, about rape culture, about white privilege, about “isms” — all of which have had a profound influence on my intellectual development and worldview. I learned active listening skills, how to handle suicidal callers, and challenges specific to male and to deaf survivors. I learned how to talk to survivors’ loved ones. I learned to laugh on occasion in the face of horror — and why a sense of humor is one of the most important survival skills. I learned why we say “survivors.”

Since that training — over the course of at least 300 shifts — I’ve answered hundreds of hotline calls (and completed paperwork for each one), made dozens of hospital visits (and completed even more paperwork for each one of those), and ordered countless cabs for both volunteers and survivors (see above, re: paperwork). I’ve called every homeless shelter in the D.C.-area at least once, and I’ve spoken with emergency services in four states. I’ve seen almost 20 classes of volunteers graduate after me, and I’ve led training sessions for many of them. I’ve supported new volunteers as a “big vollie” and as a back-up supervisor during their hotline and advocacy shifts. I’ve served on the Center’s board, as volunteer liaison, for the past four years. I’ve seen eight amazing women lead the volunteer corps, with at least as many (no less amazing) volunteer program assistants. I’ve seen the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program run by four different women at two different hospitals. A thousand times I’ve said, “I believe you. You’re not crazy. You’re not alone.”

My first visit to the hospital, back when survivors were routed to Howard, was in 2006. I had completed my training months earlier but just hadn’t ever gotten called to the hospital on any of my advocacy shifts. When I got the call just after midnight, I was afraid — that I wouldn’t remember what to do, that I wouldn’t be of any help, that the survivor would see my fear. When it was over, I called my back-up to lament my inadequacy. But a month later, the volunteer office shared with me a thank-you letter that the survivor had written to the Center. The initial flush of pride turned to fear (again), and I expressed the concern, “I don’t know if I can do that well again.” And that’s when the wonderful Kim Lopez smiled and said to me, “But you’ll try.”

most valvable player; photo by salem pearce

I went on to win the “most valuable” volunteer award two years in a row. But I really, really don’t want this to seem like bragging. I am definitely proud of what I have done with the Center, but I haven’t done anything extraordinary. I just used the excellent training and support that the Center offered me. And it turns out that our society — not to mention the medical and legal systems that survivors must navigate — treat victims of sexual assault so badly that it doesn’t take much to seem practically like a ministering angel. In every encounter, I strove to meet survivors where they were and to treat them as what they were: human beings in pain.

I wish I could say that I remember every survivor I met in the hospital, but over the years the many faces and stories have run together. I’ve advocated for college students and for sex workers, for tourists and for homeless people. I’ve seen a survivor laughing and chatting with friends right before the exam — and I’ve seen a survivor beaten unrecognizable. I’ve had gifts pressed into my hands — and I’ve been told to “get the fuck out of my face.” I’ve helped a woman figure out how to keep an assault from her partner — and I’ve seen a man break down while trying to figure out how to tell his. I’ve seen survivors raped by lovers, family, friends, acquaintances, employers, caregivers, and strangers.

As might be expected, the work has taken its toll on me. On the hotline, I’ve been terrified by prank callers, worn out by repeat callers, cursed at by angry callers. A few years ago I suffered a bout of severe symptoms as a secondary survivor, as a result of exposure to so much trauma. I couldn’t hear or read anything related to sexual assault without being triggered. After a volunteering hiatus and numerous therapy sessions, the symptoms became less severe. And I’ve gotten much better at self-care, setting boundaries, and saying no.

Usually when I tell people that I volunteer at a rape crisis center, they assume the experience is thusly horrific. But — and this is why I decided to write this post — the experience was unquestionably and unbelievably rewarding. As I told my mom after I got that letter: I can die happy, since I know I have helped one person on this earth.

Even more, I found myself during training: I was unemployed when it started, and by the time it was over, I had my first job in D.C. Initially I wasn’t sure if I had the qualities to be a good volunteer, but the experience first showed me that I was capable of some measure of true selflessness and sympathy.

To be sure, I’ve seen possibly the worst thing one human being can do to another, but I’ve also seen the best thing one human being can do for another — in the form of the legions of (mostly) women willing to answer a phone or go to a hospital at any time of day for a total stranger. I’ve never stopped being amazed at my fellow volunteers. And some have become my closest friends or my (s)heroes: Mara Berman (who I met the first day of training!), Kim Shults, Edda Santiago, Ana Ottman, Mahri Irvine, Stacey Lantz, Chai Shenoy, Liz Nelson, Amy Gordon, Alicia Gill.

I can say with complete confidence that I’ve gotten more out of being a volunteer with the Center than I’ve given.

And yesterday, I asked to be removed from the active volunteer email list. More than anything else, this action has made real my upcoming move. I don’t know how to live in D.C. and not be a DCRCC volunteer; I’ve known the Center longer than I’ve known my husband.

But it’s time to go.

cutting for stone

Trigger warning: The book and this post, albeit briefly, explore the subject of sexual violence, which may be upsetting to survivors.

Each summer, my family rents a beach house in Atlantic Beach, N.C., and we spend a week together in what is always for me the most relaxing vacation of the year. I’m generally able to read four or five books — and everyone else passes the time the same way, often swapping books. Usually there’s at least one that forms a line: from the past couple of years, it’s been the latest in the Harry Potter series, Little Bee, and Water for Elephants.

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone was last year’s beach book, but vacation ended before the book was passed to me. I didn’t pick it up until recently, but apparently I’m on a kick of novels that take place during mid-20th-century upheaval in African countries. However, I think the book would have benefited more in terms of my review if I had read it last summer rather than when I did read it, which was mostly during Passover last week: my husband’s family is a little less used to me buried in a book than my family is. Some of the difficulty I had in concentrating may have spilled over into my opinion of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book — although I don’t think I liked it as much as my family did, or as much as the gushing reviews on the back cover. The story of extraordinary identical twins born under even more extraordinary circumstances, the novel takes the reader from India to Ethiopia, then to the U.S. and back, delving into the lives of a half a dozen medical professionals, most of whom are related.

The title is a play on words that the book unfortunately doesn’t do much to explain. “Stone” is the surname of the twins, given to them in honor of their absent biological father. But it’s also a reference to a portion of the Hippocratic Oath: “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.” In this case, “stone[s]” refer to those of the kidney, bladder, and gallbladder, which must be removed via surgery — the distinction between physicians and surgeons an important one in 5th century BCE Greece. More generally, it’s a promise to do what is best for a patient — what is within the doctor’s skills — and not to overreach. It’s a lesson that the book illustrates, if not elucidates, well.

Born in the oddly-named Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Shiva and Marion are the improbable progeny of the hospital’s main surgeon and his surgical assistant, Sister Mary Joseph Praise. Their nun mother dies in childbirth, and their father leaves the country in grief, leaving the boys to be raised by two of the hospital’s other doctors. They grow up against the background of (historical) political turmoil in Ethiopia, which eventually forces Marion to flee to the U.S., where he pursues his medical studies, reunites with Thomas Stone, and finally decides to return to the land of his birth.

Verghese is a doctor, but he’s also a talented writer who is able to make compelling the intricacies of surgery (much like one of my favorite authors, Atul Gawande, who provided one of the adulatory blurbs). He weaves a beautiful story, told through the voice of Marion, an extremely earnest narrator. Marion is buffeted more than most by forces beyond his control, and my heart broke for him on more than one occasion (I was even in tears at the end of the novel). I was, however, not so sympathetic, when fueled by anger, he forces himself more than once on a vulnerable childhood friend. Verghese even has him use the phrase “took her” in describing one of the encounters, and the thrust of this part of the plot (excuse the terrible pun) is that Marion is justified in his behavior — although he certainly comes to to regret his actions (but for different reasons). It was a disappointing part of a story that otherwise treats relationships, not to mention the importance of humanity in practice of medicine, with sensitivity and wisdom.

mikveh

On Wednesday night, I took in a performance of “Mikveh” at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. (And thanks to my friend Rabbi Tamara Miller, who led an interfaith panel on “Water and Ritual” afterwards, my ticket was comped! Free stuff = good.)

The two-hour piece takes place exclusively in a mikveh in an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel; all of its characters are female (although the male characters — the husbands — play important roles in the action off-stage). A mikveh, or a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion, is the way in which these women regain ritual purity after menstruation. Ostensibly, the women come to the mikveh each month for the same reason, but it becomes clear during the course of the play that things are not as they seem with the mikveh’s regular visitors.

One of the most serious secrets that is revealed to the two mikveh attendants, who supervise immersions to ensure that they are completed according to halacha, or Jewish law, is the physical abuse suffered by one of the women, Chedva, at the hands of her very powerful — and purportedly very religious — husband. Ultimately, the women who end up at the mikveh together each month band together to help this “battered wife,” as well as to comfort each other in their respective problems.

I didn’t love the way that the domestic violence was handled on stage. For one, the new mikveh attendant, Shira, a community outsider and the subject of much speculation and gossip, is set up as Chedva’s savior. New on the scene, she tricks Chedva into accepting a DV helpline number, is insistent that Chedva leave her husband, and then offstage, after a particular bad beating (we assume), makes the decision to remove Chedva from her home and hide her and her daughter.

As my friend Alicia notes in her blog post on battering in public places,

often, survivors would say that they didn’t want people to get involved because it only made it far more dangerous for them- they know their abusers best, and how to survive just enough. they know their partner’s moods, schedules, patterns. they have had to. they are surviving. they are incredibly resourceful and resilient. other folks coming in to “save” them only makes abusers mad (and leaves the survivors feeling more disempowered). and those abusers very rarely take it out on the strangers. they take it out on their partner.

It was great to see the very different women in the play come together to buck the patriarchal world of Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy, but I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative was a little insulting to those women. Were they not capable of seeing the abuse and devising an organic solution, one specific to their community? Wasn’t Chedva herself capable of deciding if and when she left her abusive husband? Plus, the scene in which Shira is trying to get the other women in the mikveh on board with her solution suffers from being an unfortunately strained, melodramatic moment on stage.

I was also concerned that the literature around the play didn’t contain any trigger warnings, which it really should, dealing as it does with the traumatic issues of domestic violence and rape. (The website and program do contain the spoiler that the play contains nudity (gasp!), which seems both kind of obvious and not really a big deal at all.) Indeed, it was really hard for me to be unexpectedly faced with fairly graphic representations of these issues. One of the women (spoiler alert) commits suicide over, in part, the non-consensual sex that she has with her husband. It’s not pretty.

I did enjoy the variety of women’s experiences that were presented in the play: All of the characters were seeking something slightly different from her mikveh experience. Unfortunately, the presentation was on the heavy-handed side.

nightmare

Last night I woke up from a dream that left me almost too scared to move. My husband was in the guest bed in the other room (he spends some nights there so as not to disturb me, an extremely light sleeper, when he knows it will take some time for him to fall asleep). And the cats weren’t in my line of vision. I fumbled for my iPhone to read my e-mail or my Facebook and Twitter feeds, desperate for something else to think about, to replace the images seared in my mind’s eye.

As in real life, I was called to the hospital to serve as an advocate for a sexual assault survivor. Her boyfriend had accompanied her on the trip to the emergency room. But a routine rape exam turned hellish when it became clear that he was the perpetrator. And he wasn’t yet done hurting her. He came after her with a surgeon’s scalpel, which she managed to use to cut a huge gash in his palm. She got away, leaving him to hunt me in a huge green operating room. When he found me, he lunged for me — but I jammed the scalpel into his stomach, twisting it as he fell on me. I could feel the blade slide through his soft belly before I woke up in a sweat.

The word “nightmare” always makes me think of the horse of Selene’s chariot from the east pediment of the Parthenon. (Part of the Elgin marbles, it now stands on display at the British Museum.) The animal is supposed to have pulled the moon across the sky all night and then into the sea. Its flaring nostrils, bulging eyes, and drooping jaw make it seem as seem as exhausted — and scared — as I feel after a bad dream. It is, in many ways, a literal “night mare.”

I have these vivid, horrifying dreams with fair regularity, and on the days following them, like today, I walk around in a fog, not sure if the waking world is more real than the one I left. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t feel as real. On these days, I find it helpful to try to immerse myself in yet another world — often a book or a TV show. They ease the transition back into what I know, rationally, to be the real world. Today it was The Other Wes Moore, which I’ll write about tomorrow.

On days like this, I am grateful to the chroniclers of other worlds.